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July 4 parades are serious business for candidates

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In California and most other states, a Fourth of July parade may be just a parade. But here in New Hampshire and Iowa, the states that hold the first presidential contests, politicians with higher aspirations know parades are serious business.

More than an hour before Amherst’s parade, volunteers for GOP presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. gathered at the route, ready to rumble.

Huntsman, a presidential campaign newcomer, had followed the parade organizer’s rules and capped his group at 30 volunteers — leaving them stretched thinly across the parade route. He was trailed by a Jeep.

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But with one presidential run under its belt, Romney’s campaign left nothing to chance, ignoring the rules to marshal more than 130 blue-shirted volunteers. A massive float bearing the state seal trailed the candidate.

When it came to impressing voters Monday, no detail was too small — which parade the candidates would attend, their choice of clothing, their skill at skirting Amherst’s candy-tossing ban (Romney’s camp put small boys on scooters to ride the route offering sweets from blue buckets).

The candidates were advised to walk briskly to avoid holding up those behind them and to weave from side to side of the parade route to shake as many hands as possible.

“The folks watching the parade, they want to see and touch the candidates,” longtime New Hampshire political operative Mike Dennehy said.

About 1,400 miles away in Clear Lake, Iowa, ascendant candidate Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, who is fighting the perception that his campaign is circling the drain, were trying to accomplish the same thing.

All the effort might seem overkill but for the underlying political reality: Creating “a buzz around town” is precisely what candidates want to do as they try to amass volunteers and voters in key states, Dennehy said.

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Romney is weighing how heavily to compete in Iowa but must do well in New Hampshire, which explained why he chose to march in parades in the Granite State this time around.

But Iowa is a crucial state for Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman. The visit to Clear Lake — halfway between Des Moines and Minneapolis — garnered media coverage in Iowa as well as her home state.

And the Iowa parade was pure Americana, with the Knights of Columbus dressed as the Founding Fathers and cheerleaders waving from atop a firetruck. Bachmann, wearing a black-and-white outfit, a flag pin and kitten heels, dashed in front of her enormous blue campaign bus.

“Hi guys! Happy Fourth!” she said as she mussed a young boy’s hair. “It doesn’t get better than this.”

The large coterie who trailed the candidate handed out homespun signs that bore slogans such as “Wake Up America: Vote Bachmann for President!” written in red and blue.

When Bachmann spent too much time on one side of the road, a staffer would signal her to cross to the other side. A pickup preceded her so photographers crouched in its bed could perfectly document the moment.

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“Give them hell, Michele!” one man screamed. Later, half a dozen women chanted, “Go, Michele, go!”

Bachmann paused to speak with a boy in a wheelchair, who exclaimed, “That’s a big bus!”

“That’s my bus,” Bachmann said, caressing his cheek.

Voters embraced her. “We love Michele, her common sense, her fiscal responsibility for this country,” said Terri King, 53, a nurse from Dougherty.

“What’s not to love?” added husband Tim, who later had the candidate sign the shirt he wore, bearing the popular “tea party” motto of “Don’t Tread on Me.”

The scene around Gingrich, 20 spots back in the procession, was far more staid. Gingrich’s campaign has been beset by problems, including the resignation of nearly his entire staff. On Monday, clad in a casual striped shirt, he was accompanied by his wife, Callista, two staffers and a handful of volunteers, who walked behind a classic Ford Thunderbird that bore Gingrich signs.

“Good to see you. Hello,” the former House speaker said as he strolled along Main Street, pointing out a group of Luther College students to his wife, a graduate of the school.

He beckoned two women wearing foam Statue of Liberty crowns to come pose for a picture with him.

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Ronald Stenberg, 70, of Ames sought out Gingrich for a handshake. “You are a great man,” he said.

Gingrich got into a lengthy discussion with a veteran who decried partisanship in Washington. Gingrich cited his collaboration as House speaker with President Clinton, with whom he worked on balancing the budget and reforming welfare.

He invoked the small-town reception to dismiss the notion — popular among Beltway observers — that his candidacy is moribund.

“I just wish all the guys in Washington would come out and walk in a parade with me and go to one town hall meeting — I think they’d have a very different attitude,” Gingrich said.

In Amherst, the thorniest question had been which of the former governors — Romney of next-door Massachusetts or Huntsman of Utah — would get the first position, the spot that ensures maximum exposure.

But Nancy Head, the organizer, settled it in no-nonsense New England fashion: “It’s very simple. It goes to whoever gets their paperwork in first.”

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That was Romney, who may have learned his lesson four years ago in Clear Lake when he was forced to trail — and was eclipsed by — Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Before the parade, Romney and Huntsman exchanged a quick handshake but did not linger, alternating between walking and jogging separately along the route. Romney, wearing a Red Sox shirt and red-and-gray sneakers, demonstrated a mastery of greeting voters while walking backward.

Huntsman, his wife and one of his daughters were camera-ready in color-coordinated red- white- and blue-checked shirts. A staff member slipped cash into his hand at one point, directing him to a lemonade stand as the cameras crowded around. He paid 50 cents and left a 50-cent tip.

Farther up the route, Romney stopped to buy lemonade from 8-year-old Braden Foulks, who grinned widely when the candidate stuck a $5 bill in his jar.

Romney ended the parade at the town green, stepping onto a wooden soapbox with his name stenciled on it.

“We’ll be seeing you a good deal more than you’d like to see us, I have a feeling, but we’re going to keep asking you for help,” he said.

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A few yards away, Huntsman said goodbye to his admirers.

“This is a state where good old shoe leather counts,” he said. “This is a marathon, and I would say right now we’re basically going through the stretching exercises.”

maeve.reston@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Reston reported from Amherst, and Mehta from Clear Lake.

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